New York City Theater
"Of Mice and Men"
“Dutiful” rather than “demanding” describes the revival of “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s stinging drama of friendship and envy. Starring two movie names, James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, and directed with a feel for atmosphere by Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”), the evening curves from engaging to flat and back again. The famous tale of two itinerant workers whose attachment to each other arouses curiosity and violence is missing urgency.
George (Franco) is saddled with Lennie (O’Dowd), the slow-witted giant whose fondness for softness – a puppy, a mouse, a woman’s hair – eventually causes his tragedy. Traveling together from job to job in 1930s California, belonging no place, their goal is to make enough money to buy a farm where Lennie can “get to tend the rabbits.”
What seems simple becomes complicated not only by the attitudes of others but George and Lennie’s own ambitions and shortcomings. Despite George’s admonitions, Lennie, a man of brute strength, can’t stay out of trouble, leading to one of the most moving and shocking endings in American drama, one from which even its perpetrator recoils.
Not only Lennie’s nature, but the people he and George encounter, bring trouble on their heads. There’s Curley, the diminutive foreman forever suspicious of his slatternly, restless wife, named only as “Curley’s Wife.” There’s Candy, the elderly hand with the mangy dog he loves, itching to leave his present life, as does another outcast, Crooks, who’s black and isolated. They want to latch onto not so much the reality of George and Lennie but their illusory dreams.
Friendship and companionship are so hard to come by that even talking doesn’t mean anything. “It’s just being with another guy, that’s all,” says Crooks. “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.”
That need for one another is vague in this production. Franco, a decent actor, is laid-back, suppressing his emotions. As Lennie, O’Dowd is more engaged, fluttering his hands or striking them one against the other to show someone struggling to say what he’s feeling. Helpless even when being attacked, O’Dowd’s Lennie is a child’s soul in a man’s body, an innocent in a cruel world he doesn’t understand. It’s a profound performance.
Leading an excellent cast are Jim Norton as the sad-sack yet ever hopeful Candy, Jim Parrack as the pragmatic Slim and Ron Cephas Jones as the isolated Crook. Todd Rosenthal’s sets are both realistic and oppressive, as is Japhy Weideman’s lighting. They give peaks and valleys to a production that is often as flat as the land George and Lennie dream about.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 29, 2014